How OHS can help organisations and their leaders adjust to the “new normal”

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Wednesday, 24 March, 2021 - 12:00
Industry news

As employees gradually return to the workplace and adapt to new ways of working, many leaders are looking to utilise this opportunity to protect employees’ wellbeing and create meaningful change within their organisations.

In 2020, every company had to pivot to meet the changing needs of their organisation and their people and react in real-time to provide additional vital support, said Dr Sarah Cotton, organisational psychologist and co-director of Transitioning Well.

“When you consider we went from one in three Australians regularly working from home to almost everyone working from home, I think both employers and employees did remarkably well to quickly adjust and adapt to the initial transition,” she said.

However, the challenge now is navigating what the “new normal” looks like in terms of hybrid work.

“We’re witnessing a real reluctance for employees to return to the working lives they once knew pre-pandemic,” said Cotton.

“From a recent ABS study, we know that 42 per cent of employed Australians want the amount of work from home to stay the same.

“For some, it’s the hesitation to give up their newfound flexibility, but for others, there’s real anxiety around public health concerns such as return to commuting or resuming the more social aspects of their role such as attending events, travel or external meetings.”

While some organisations have asked all their people to work from home, and some are juggling a workforce that is half-home and half in the office, Cotton said this transition brings both challenges and opportunities.

“COVID-19 has been instrumental in opening up important conversations about wellbeing in the workplace, and employers are recognising that the demands on individual workers are ever-changing,” she said.

“It’s been encouraging to see the many changes that have come about from the challenges that businesses faced as a result of the pandemic.”

While the move to remote working environments has enabled many individuals to practice flexible working arrangements, and better manage their work and personal commitments, Cotton observed that many work-life boundaries became blurred, leading to increased work engagement and difficulties switching off from work commitments.

This led to an increase in work-family conflict, and higher levels of stress, particularly where a worker was managing other non-work-related responsibilities such as carer responsibilities and childcare.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cotton said many working parents faced challenges integrating their work and family lives, without adding the full-time responsibility of home-schooling their children.

“The way we worked, socialised and communicated changed almost overnight, and this had an impact on the significant number of Australians living alone,” she said.

“For most people, there has been a lot of life changes in a short space of time, which has led to higher levels of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.”

In response, Cotton said organisations need to implement systems and policies that support employee entitlements around flexible work and develop a culture where these are proactively implemented.

“Leaders need to ensure they keep communicating their needs and expectations, and that they keep checking the needs and expectations of their employees; setting up a shared understanding to always ask rather than assume,” she said.

“Managers directly impact employees’ day-to-day work experience through workload assigned to individuals, the expectations they set, and the support and resources provided, so investing in manager capability and support is going to have a positive trickle-down effect in your workplace.

“Take the time to deeply understand the circumstances of each of your employees, and how this transition is impacting them.”

Cotton said creating an environment of psychological safety is important for supporting their wellbeing and productivity.

“It’s important to remember that the initial transition to working from home was not a choice,” she said.

“And as we start coming back, there are more options available and this is where supporting the psychological transition becomes really critical as we’re helping people set up new rhythms and routines again.

“We know that transition can be easier when we feel we have some choice and control, or if the change is in a preferred direction.”

For OHS professionals, Cotton said it comes back to the need to know your people and train leaders to identify if people are not okay, not just with the reluctance to return, but with all those other work-life pieces coming back into the workplace environment.

“Leaders who recognise the signs of distress, anxiety and depression or family and domestic violence are more equipped to respond quickly with support,” she said.

OHS professionals need to protect and understand employee legal rights and entitlements in the workplace, according to Cotton, who said some of the best practices include being informed and proactively offering clear information to support employees through this transition.

“It’s important to understand the support available and actively encourage others to make use of it, including EAP access, HR resources and other wellbeing programs,” she said.

“Be aware of any biases you may have, or limits to your understanding. For example, if you don’t have kids or aren’t sharing a workspace yourself, talk to friends or family who are.”

Compassionately acknowledging and addressing the challenges faced by employees working from home or transitioning back into the workplace builds trust and demonstrates support. “Even if they are going well, trusting that they can bring concerns to you is already a powerful form of support,” said Cotton.


Rachael Palmer from Transitioning Well will be speaking at the 2021 AIHS National Health & Safety Conference, which will be held online from 18-20 May 2021. For more information call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the conference website.